Contemporary mixed-media artist Leonard D. Harmon explores a wide range of styles and mediums, from traditional native craft to fine art painting. He resides on the Confederated Tribes of Siletz Indians reservation in Siletz, Oregon. Leonard has cultural pieces in the Camden Historical Society Museum and the Nanticoke Indian Museum, and has had recent shows around the US, including a show last month at Blackfish Gallery in Portland, Oregon.
In our interview, we talk about artistic heritage, dinosaurs made of beads, and rockabilly.
I know your tribal affiliations are Lenape (of what is now New Jersey) and Nanticoke (of what is now Delaware). Can you elaborate on your lineage and family history?
I come from a long line of people who were creative in their own right. Woodcarvers, furniture makers, beaders and florists. The most well-known is my uncle and namesake, Leonard Allen Harmon, who was a contemporary artist. He has works in the Heard Museum as well as private collections. He’s one of the main reasons I got inspired to try my hand at contemporary art.
Your work spans a wide range of mediums, from traditional native craft to contemporary oil painting and even collage. What draws you to the different mediums? What’s the through line?
I like using older images to tell a new story of putting perspective on our history. As a newer artist, I like exploring all kinds of methods and mediums. Each new style I incorporate helps me express myself in a new way. I’m never scared to try new things and see where my mind takes me.
Can you tell me more about this week’s cover art, "Where They Walk"?
This started out as an experiment with landscapes in the background. As soon as I saw the Apache crown dancers, I knew they belonged. When you look at the piece, it’s hard to tell if they’re here on our world or the spirit world. I think it makes it special!
You studied culinary arts in college. Can you tell me about your background and passion for cooking?
In high school I had an opportunity to take culinary classes. It was something that I enjoyed and I was wicked at it! With that I could potentially support myself financially in the future. I attend Johnson and Wales University in Charleston, South Carolina, which is one of the top schools in the nation for Culinary and Hospitality. After years of working in kitchens my passion shifted and now I reserve my cooking for family and friends.
What is your artistic intent with the series “Communicating through the Veil”?
I showed the first piece, “Where They Walk,” to a tribal elder. She said it was like she was looking through the veil, and how we still communicate with our ancestors. That really inspired me to explore that process with this imagery.
You just had a successful group show in Portland at Blackfish Gallery. Any upcoming shows or exhibits? New work you’re excited about sharing?
I was recently a collaborator on a piece that was unveiled at the Philadelphia Naval Yard with Mexican artist Marianela Fuentes called “Alpha Sacred Beings (The Origin of Creation),” where we created a massive replica of a dinosaur done in tiny seed beads. Also, there is a show called Refuge (needing, seeking, creating shelter) opening September 2 at 21c Hotel Museum in Cincinnati OH. I have a painting in this show called Snakes Amongst Us that I’m super excited about.
You’ve got some impressive history with B-boy culture, DJing, breakdancing, and, of course, traditional Native American dance as well. What comparisons can you draw between the two cultures and dance forms?
As a child I grew up in an urban area, cut off from my culture. So I found things that moved me like B-boy culture, digging for records, and DJing. This brought me absence of belonging. When I got older I started getting more involved in my heritage. I started learning how to make our traditional crafts, and really started dancing in pow wows and social dances. All of it really is about self expression, creativity, and creating community.
What music is playing in your studio these days?
It all depends on what mood I’m in. A relaxed day could sound like John Carrol Kirby or an obscure movie soundtrack. On a hype day, I could be listening to Action Bronson or Grave Diggaz or rare disco! At the moment, though, I’m listening to old rockabilly records.